When faced with bad news, it often seems pointless, even irresponsible, to look for the positives. (It can feel a little like sticking your head into the sand, noting how fine and white and soft it is.) But taking a moment to observe and appreciate the beauty around us is in fact essential for our mental health, says Jaime Kurtz, a professor of psychology who researches happiness at James Madison University in Virginia. Not only does it provide much-needed ballast, it also gives us the strength to keep on going, she says. (It’s worth noting that during President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at an art gallery contemplating Monet and Munch.) I spoke to Kurtz about how to actually see what’s bright and beautiful on even the greyest of days — and how that can save us in the long run.
What can literally stopping and smelling the roses do for us?
Taking a moment to slow things down, look at what’s in front of you and breathe can have a nice restorative, physical effect. It can be a simple way to relax your body and undo some of the stress that follows us every day. There’s a lot of research that suggests happiness is really tied up with gratitude. The more grateful you are the happier you tend to be; but to feel grateful for what’s around you, you have to notice it first.
Some might say looking on the bright side is overly naïve. But can focusing on what’s stressful give us just as distorted a view?
Absolutely, it’s much easier to see the world in a negative way. Anxiety and fear and anger loom so large in our mind and take up so much energy and mental space, we need to be able to inject some positivity just to kind of be okay. Those moments of positivity can keep hope alive and keep you motivated to work on things, to change things.
What are some ways to sneak in some moments of noticing beauty?
Putting your phone away would be a great place to start. Once I was walking across my college campus and there was a vivid, beautiful rainbow and nobody saw it because everyone was looking at their phone. I find sketching can be a nice way to appreciate what’s in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re terrible at drawing, it forces you to notice little details. You can do a savouring walk — using all your senses. What do you smell, what do you see and hear, how does the ground feel? Another suggestion is to imagine how you’d want to spend your time if you were moving away in 30 days. We recently published a paper on this idea of time scarcity, and we found that this exercise puts you in the mindset of a traveller: it helps you figure out your priorities. You don’t want to squander your time watching Netflix, you want to see your favourite people and be in your favourite places.
It never feels as if there’s enough time to add even more things in.
When we feel overwhelmed, it can be really hard to take time to focus on other things. It can feel like such a luxury to take five minutes and just sit quietly, or go for a walk, but that’s when it can be the most powerful. And really, we all have five minutes.
Sometimes I feel just as agitated after a walk — am I doing it wrong?
We have a tendency to ruminate on negative things or people who are annoying us, and we don’t always do such a good job of working through it productively. At times like that, it might be better to do something that takes up more mental energy, like playing the piano or a sport. And sometimes your mind needs to work through the issue. Try talking about it, or writing about how it makes you feel. There are all these different happiness strategies, but you have to find the one that fits.
What can’t appreciation do for us?
It’s not a substitute for actually coping with your problems — a trip to the art museum isn’t going to fix an issue with anxiety. And we can’t force it. Some researchers have started to look at the downsides of pursuing happiness, and they’ve found that when you’re really trying to be happy, it can actually be very frustrating. The best you can do is set the stage — take technology breaks, walk in nature, do gratitude journaling, meditate. But instead of asking, Am I happy now? Am I happy now? Just let it unfold.
Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor at Today’s Parent, and a mom of two.
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